Norwegians should know better than anyone else not to feed the trolls. But it is hard to turn the other cheek when they jump above the line – not only to opinion pieces, but to the “news” section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Michael Booth’s hatchet job on Nordic Countries entitled “Dark Lands: The Grim Truth behind the Scandinavian Miracle” has gone viral at the time of writing to the tune of 20,000 shares on Facebook. Intended to “redress the imbalance” of pro-Scandinavian articles in the UK press, Booth, a resident of Denmark, sets himself up as an expert on all the Nordic countries’ social woes. Predictably, our hero Booth misfires badly. As one commentator on the Guardian explained, Booth’s article is what you get when you “take a stereotype, blend it with a pinch of ignorance, add a smattering off rather desperate humour and try and sell it in book form as real insight.”
I am not qualified to offer a riposte on behalf of the other Nordic countries slandered. But as a long-term and extremely grateful English immigrant to Norway, a land Booth calls “xenophobic”, “scrooge-like” “a-social” and “inward looking”, I feel a duty to defend my adopted home. Indeed, Booth appears unable to write a sentence on Norway unburdened by a faulty premise or willful misrepresentation. The following is a dissection of the article, point by point
1. The conflation of Breivik, anti-Islamism and the “rise” of Progress (FrP)
Booth: in September the right-wing, anti-Islamist Progress party – of which Breivik had been an active member for many years – won 16.3% of the vote in the general election, enough to elevate it into coalition government for the first time in its history. There remains a disturbing Islamophobic sub-subculture in Norway.
There is so much wrong with this, it is difficult to know where to begin. (To start), Breivik left Frp ages ago complaining it was not radical enough. Moreover, if we judged collectives by their most extreme individual members, then the Republican party in the U.S. has thousands of “links” to extremists of every stripe. But even if you accept the dim-witted simplistic premise that Progress are a one policy “anti-Islamist” party, their percentage of the vote has fallen by a third since the last election. If one assumes that FrP’s voters are a homogenous gang of extremist racist right wingers, as Booth implies when it linking Progress FrP to Breivik, then such a vast drop in 4 years suggests that Norway is doing a pretty good job of dealing with its anti-Islamist subculture.
However, labelling FrP as merely an “anti-Islamist party is hopelessly reductionist; they have a broad populist platform that promises low taxes, cheap booze, more roads, more money for the police, “freedom of choice” (read privatisation) as well as anti- immigration policies . The most we can say is that their anti-immigration policies did not put off 16% of Norway from voting for them.
Furthermore though, Booth’s “grim truth” in Norway is also the norm in the UK. The policies and rhetoric of “the anti-Islamist party” in Norway are the staple of the UK’s mainstream parties.The UK loves to look down on continental Europe whenever a far right party gets into office, but in fact, the UK’s “disturbing anti-Islamic subculture”, is hidden about as well as a racist elephant a rug. The UKIP are hardly enlightened, yet regularly poll around 18%; while the violent anti-Islamic British Self Defence league counts its members in the thousands. But perhaps most tellingly is that many of this “anti-Islamist” party’s polices were born in Britain: Progress’ plan to intern asylum seekers while their application is processed was introduced 10 years ago in the UK by New “Labour”. The reason the UK has no “anti-immigration” party in power is because it has an undemocratic election system that very deliberately marginalises the small parties (right, left, racist and green). Ultimately, though, the UK’s current coalition government makes FrP Progress look moderate: after all this British government is the one that recently introduced a migrant repatriation scheme in which giant billboards with “GO HOME” were driven around ethnically diverse areas of London. If Norway has a disturbing anti-Islamic subculture, as Booth suggests, then the UK simply has a disturbing anti-Islamic culture.
2. Proving prejudice with prejudice
To apparently prove his claim about Norwegians especially xenophobia nature. Booth writes:
Ask the Danes, and they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians
This must be one of the most dim-witted statements ever to be published in The Guardian. It uses prejudice as evidence of prejudice; Booth is essentially saying that “generalizing from what can only be the tiny sample of Danes I have met, they seem to frequently and unpleasantly generalize that Norwegians make the most unpleasant generalizations”.
Can we expect the Guardian to report on miscellaneous English people’s observations on Scottish spending habits, the French’s penchant for garlic and America’s collective IQ when it comes to other “international news”, then? The answer of course is no, because that would be stupid.
3. Imaginary trends, imaginary correlations
Booth: it is true that since they came into a bit of money in the 1970s the Norwegians have become increasingly Scrooge-like, hoarding their gold, fearful of outsiders.
Booth has a lot going on here: Norway Hitting oil (or coming into money) is correlated with both 1) Scrooge-like hoarding and 2) fear of outsiders. Let’s break this down: First of all, the notion that Norway came into money is misleading. Norway did not just come into money, it hit oil, something very different. Oil, counter-intuitively, is actually correlated with under-development and war, not wealth. Norway is pretty much the only country that has escaped the “Oil Curse”, and managed to spread the benefits across its whole society; hence why Norway now rests top of the UN development index and has long sat amongst top five most equal societies in the world. Norway has certainly shared the oil money with its general population, then.
But what if Booth means hoard in the sense of not sharing it with the world?
Well, again, Norway has also long resided in the top 5 of aid giving countries. So, unless Booth expects Norway to just give away its oil money at unprecedented levels, Booth is again misleading his readers. Meanwhile, Norwegian Universities provide fee-less education in English to the 10% of its students from abroad . In this regard, they beat most of Europe (and certainly the UK) in terms sharing their education services to “outsiders”.
Perhaps when Booth suggests hoard he is making a reference to Norway’s Pension fund, the world’s largest investment fund. Granted, you could call that Scrooge-like if you consider saving money for your general population to cope with the latent pension time bomb threatening all social democracies, , but I think that might better fall under the adjective “prudent”. It certainly beats privatising the North Sea stocks and spending the windfall to spend on a self-inflicted recession like Margaret Thatcher did.
Booth’s second claim is even more dubious: Fear of outsiders in Norway he claims has apparently increased since the 1970s, and this is correlated to swelling of the oil fund. How precisely is he measuring this fear of outsiders? Norway has a lot more “outsiders” living within its borders these days due to globalisation, and like all Western Social Democracies, it is experiencing teething problems marked by a growth in nationalist parties like Progress. However, it is huge leap to pin this un-sourced growing “fear of outsiders” on Norway’s oil wealth. Indeed, it would be obvious to roll out the old “correlation is not causation” cliché here, but it does Booth’s argument too much credit, as he offers nothing compelling to support his claim the fear of outsiders is growing.
4. Lies, Damn lies, Statistics and Sweden
Instead, what Booth does offer is this wilfully disingenuous comparison with Sweden’s asylum policy:
though 2013 saw a record number of asylum applications to Norway, it granted asylum to fewer than half of them (around 5,000 people), a third of the number that less wealthy Sweden admits (Sweden accepted over 9,000 from Syria alone)
The first thing to note is that Norway is half the size of Sweden, so comparing absolute numbers is unfair. But making amends for what I will generously call Booth’s “oversight”, we can see that Norway accepted about ⅔ of the asylum seekers Sweden did relative to its whole population. This is still not as good as Sweden, but then Sweden is top of the list in terms of the number of asylum seekers accepted per person, so the comparison does not really show that Norway is bad, as much as Sweden is very good. Norway actually came a pretty decent 3rd. Thus if Norway is becoming more fearful of outsiders (accepting Booths dubious criteria, or accepting asylum seekers), it still seems considerably less fearful than the vast majority of the rest of the world.
5 Harder, Longer, Sicker
Booth: “his countrymen [Norwegians] have been corrupted by their oil money, are working less, retiring earlier, and calling in sick more frequently.”
Booth demonstrates here that he might well be a sociopath. In Booth’s world, Norway could improve by working 12 hour days until death and never calling in sick – unless you happen to die. Earlier in the piece, when damning Denmark with nonsense, Booth suggested that Denmark’s shorter working days caused low labour productivity (this is nonsense because productivity is measured by output per hour), here Booth fails to grasp rudimentary social policy, or more bluntly, the raison d’état of the state: to make people’s lives better. Ideally, this involves – you guessed it – working less, retiring earlier, and calling in sick when you are sick. That is not “corruption”, it is progress.
None of this is to say that Norway is some sort of Utopia. However, it has many flaws. And the original premise of Booth’s article to look beyond the “unblinking idolatry” of all things Scandinavian is a good one. The trouble here is the execution and the executioner. Booth’s text is at its best when writing about Denmark – not surprising since that is where Booth lives – and worst when regurgitating stereotypes about Norway, where he has not lived. The Guardian should have found experts for each Scandinavian country if they wanted credible nuanced reporting. Unfortunately, The Guardian loses close to £1m a week, and given the choice between click-bait trolling, and quality reporting, clicks won. A sad day for a once proud newspaper.